Behind the barrier

Israelis say a new partitioning of the West Bank is critical to security. Palestinians say they'll be prisoners on their own land.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Yusif Josef Ramsi is still farming, if you can call it that. The West Bank farmer, never a major landowner, once tended his seven-acre plot of fig and olive trees with pride.

Now, what's left of his patrimony sits in a few dozen black plastic buckets.

"The rest is all over there," says Mr. Ramsi, pointing a gnarled hand beyond the sleek gray expanse of Israel's security barrier, just a few feet away.

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At 26 feet high, the barrier around Qalqilya is the most striking example of Israel's attempt to physically separate itself from the Palestinians.

Israelis say the structure will end the militant attacks that have scarred their cities and left so many families in grief.

But the barrier's detours into the West Bank have claimed hundreds of acres of fertile Palestinian land, Ramsi's included, leading Palestinians to question whether security is Israel's only consideration. "We'll have a Palestinian state you can fit in a Coca-Cola bottle," Ramsi jokes bitterly.

Concerns about the barrier's route have brought it center stage. President Bush has raised it with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The State Department is proposing sanctions against Israel for construction in Palestinian areas. While Israeli officials stress the barrier's security function, Israelis outside government say it is also driven by a desire to define the borders of a Palestinian state. As such, it could derail the shaky Israeli-Palestinian peace plan now under discussion.

"[The barrier] will profoundly change the geographical and political landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," RAND Corporation analyst Bruce Hoffman wrote recently.

The barrier is also the latest manifestation of a tragic trend in this conflict, in which the long-term security that Israelis desire and the state that Palestinians envision are in danger of becoming mutually exclusive possibilities.

Some 80 percent of Israelis, tired and worn after what the army estimates are 817 deaths at the hands of Palestinian militants, want the barrier. They say physical separation is the only way to free Israelis from the fear of suicide bombers. While left-wing groups campaign against the barrier, they are in a minority. Most Israelis, after three years of conflict, want nothing to do with Palestinians.

Israeli security, Palestinian hardship

But when Israelis lay out their safety concerns, Palestinians, pointing to the barrier's path through fields, around cities, and between neighbors, see only a blueprint for their suffering.

In the short term, the barrier blocks Palestinians from their land; their livelihoods, and their access to resources like water, schools, and health care. In the long term, it will stifle economic growth and, under an Ottoman-era law still in effect, could lead to the permanent loss of land. Many Palestinians believe this is the true aim of Israel's West Bank policy.

Israelis, who remember Palestinians' widespread public support for suicide bombers, say their adversaries are simply reaping the fruits of their hatred.

"We are not punishing the Palestinians. They are punished by their leadership ... that incites them," says Judith Shahor, head of staff at the group Victims of Arab Terror, whose 19-year-old son was murdered by Palestinians in 1995.

In Qalqilya, a town of 42,000 completely encircled by the barrier, Mayor Ma'aruf Zahran says both sides will pay a price for these policies.

"We have no income, no services, no water, no land [because of the barrier]. People think about moving out, we call it 'voluntary transfer,' " he says. "Young people are looking for ways of revenge. The Israelis are planting seeds of hatred and terror."

A modest genesis

The concept of a barrier emerged in November 2000, just two months after the intifada began. Then Prime Minister Ehud Barak wanted to block Palestinian cars from crossing the Green Line, which divides Israel proper and the West Bank.

When Ariel Sharon replaced Mr. Barak in March 2001, he inherited the project but had little enthusiasm for it. Right-wing Israelis, particularly settlers living in the West Bank, were worried the barrier would entrench the Green Line as the border.

But a steady barrage of suicide bombings - 42 from March 2001 to March 2002 - and strong public support for the barrier - shifted the tide. Settlers didn't want to pit themselves against the general public and fell in line behind the barrier. However, they planned to make changes.

In April 2002, the government tapped the Ministry of Defense to oversee the project, and in August the first bulldozers bit into the earth.

What are they building is not strictly a fence, the word Israelis prefer, and only five miles of the completed 87-mile northern section is a wall, the term Palestinians use. Every few miles, there will be gates to allow farmers access to their lands. If a farmer like Ramsi couldn't get through his gate and decided to cross illegally, he would face a formidable challenge.

He would have to scale a 6-foot-high pyramid of coiled razor wire; clamber through an 8-foot ditch; cross an army patrol path, then climb a 10-foot-high fence, avoiding its intrusion-detection sensors. Around Qalqilya, concrete walls stand 26-feet high.

Once on the other side, he would land in a sea of sand meant to capture his footprints. Then, the remaining hurdles: a patrol road wide enough for a tank, another sand trap, another razor-wire pyramid, surveillance cameras, and, every few miles, a manned sniper tower.

Officials describe the barrier as an interim security measure meant to stand until conditions are sufficiently peaceful. Palestinians and Israelis alike question who would spend $2 million per half mile on a temporary fixture. Netzah Mashiah, director of the Seamline Project Administration in charge of the barrier, told Ha'aretz newspaper in May that "politicians found a formula, but I believe the fence will be the border." Settlers thought so too. Loathe to be on the "wrong" side of the barrier, they began lobbying to be on its western flank.

'We've moved the Green Line'

As mustard-yellow earth graders began leveling hills for the northern section, Palestinians watched the barrier swerve east of the Green Line, ever deeper into the West Bank's most fertile land. The 5,000-strong settlement of Alfe Menashe, just east of Qalqilya, was going to be east of the fence until its leader Eliezer Hasdai took action. Now, the barrier does a double loop, enclosing Qalqilya to the north, snaking in some 4 miles to embrace Alfe Menashe along with a substantial amount of Palestinian land.

Then it curves back out toward the Green Line, shutting the Palestinian town of Habla off from Israel and from Qalqilya, its economic hub.

Mr. Hasdai told Israeli journalist Meron Rappaport that "we've moved the Green Line." Americans will now have to decide whether politics or security concerns prompted that move, and indeed, much of the barrier's path.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that no decision has been made "at this stage" about the State Department's suggestion to dock the $9 billion in loan guarantees the US is extending Israel this year.

Under the loan guarantee agreement, the US is committed to cutting the equivalent of any money Israel derives from the guarantees and then invests in the Palestinian territories for purposes other than security.

Some observers think there's little ambiguity. "It is clear to everyone that [the barrier route] is a political line behind which there is a political outlook," David Levy, head of the settlers' Jordan Valley Council, told Ha'aretz in May.

No one yet knows what the completed barrier will look like. The Ministry of Defense planners are still mulling its final route. Even so, environmental groups, among others, have assembled maps based on government statements, media leaks, information from contractors, settler maps produced with defense ministry support, and land confiscation orders.

These orders announce, in a curious turn of phrase, that the army is "laying its hands on the land," always for security purposes and, on paper at least, only for a short-term period. Having watched numerous settlements and multi-lane highways go up in the wake of these orders, Palestinians have no faith they will see the land again.

The projected barrier map shows three Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank, hemmed in by settler access roads. One small enclave makes Jericho an island unto itself. A second encompasses Hebron and Bethlehem in the south. The third enclave extends from Jenin in the north to Ramallah, narrowing at one point to about a mile wide.

To the west, Palestinians lose swaths of land to barrier incursions that surround settlements. In the center, Jerusalem is cut off from Palestinian areas. To the east, the Jordan Valley remains in Israeli control. The enclaves are not contiguous.

Sharon watchers say the barrier route reflects his long-held beliefs about keeping control over as much land and as few Palestinians as possible. Other analysts see echoes of the Allon Plan, devised after the 1967 war and premised on the belief that keeping hold of some West Bank areas is vital.

Uzi Dayan, a former director of the National Security Council and early coordinator of the seamline project, recommended in 2002 that the barrier be built on "demographic principles." Mr. Dayan means that Palestinians, with one of the world's highest birth rates, must be contained so that their rising numbers don't threaten Israel's Jewish identity - an issue fundamental to the country's existence.

The West Bank's new look

Whatever the theory behind the barrier, its presence is already altering the political and physical terrain here. The World Bank estimates that the 87-mile section now complete directly affects 200,000 Palestinians.

Some analysts say it already short-circuits Palestinian hopes of statehood. "The wall's route is seizing some of the West Bank's most fertile land, reducing the agricultural potential of a future state, and its configuration strangles any potential for urban and economic growth," says Dutch cartographer Jan de Jong, who documents the impact of Israel's policies in the West Bank.

On the other side of the barrier, residents of the Israeli cities of Netanya and Kfar Sava, traumatized by repeated suicide bombings, say the barrier gives them a sense of security. If it means Palestinians have to truncate their dreams, so be it, they say.

"They can forget about a state in the full sense of the word," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. "We don't want to give them control over their own borders because they kill us."

Yet the barrier could make things worse, warns Mr. Hoffman of the RAND Corporation, who writes that the barrier could deepen Palestinian rage, prompting stepped up attacks against targets inside Israel, and on its citizens around the world.

Israelis like Mr. Inbar are unimpressed. "We've been through this for one hundred years," he says of the conflict. "We have the stamina to go on."

About this series

Even as Israelis and Palestinians renew political negotiations, Israel is bringing more Palestinian territory under its control. Settlers continue to expand their communities while officials claim land to build roads, establish buffers, and erect the barrier intended to protect Israelis from terrorist attack. These confiscations are eating more deeply into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, raising concerns about the viability of any future Palestinian state. This occasional series will examine the trend, its roots, and its implications for Palestinians and Israelis alike who have been profoundly affected by ongoing conflict.

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